After being absent all this season, beloved “one man part-ay” Magnitude finally made a return to last week’s Community. Unfortunately, he was also temporarily forced to hand over his signature catchphrase, “Pop pop!” to Archie, the wealthy student being wooed by the Dean and Annie, who wanted it to be “[his] thing now.” Magnitude filled an entire chalkboard with new possible phrases—“Diggidy doo” was a no-go—but thankfully, it wasn’t long before the rallying cry was reinstated to its proper owner and all at Greendale was right again.
Less positively, this moment echoed all too well one of the biggest problems plaguing the show in a Season 4 without creator Dan Harmon: a reliance on running gags and jokes from the past three seasons, while adding nothing new or memorable in return. Since this season began, we’ve seen touches of the familiar—the Let’s potato chips faux product placement from last week harkens back to Leonard’s great snack food reviews; “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” returned to the mockumentary format explored in various ways in all of the previous seasons; in “Alternative History of the German Invasion,” a quick flashback reference to several memorable study hall scenes mimicked a similar gag employed in Season 3 when the group members were tricked into believing they were actually patients in a mental ward.
Community has been on long enough now to have created a world full of inside jokes and character quirks for fans to recognize and appreciate; and even when Harmon was in charge, tidbits like Annie’s Boobs or the Dean’s obsession with Dalmatians were casually mentioned in various episodes. But this season when something familiar pops up, it either comes across as lame and underdeveloped (like the brief return of Pierce’s half-brother Gilbert in the Halloween episode) or only serves to conjure up nostalgia for what the show used to be (Professor Cornwallis’ zinger, “No dioramas,” in “Alternative History of the German Invasion”).
Meanwhile, the show has yet to cultivate any new, enduring moments to add to Community’s robust canon. The best we’ve gotten is Changnesia, which may well wear out its welcome in future installments by featuring one of Greendale’s most polarizing characters. Where are the episodes like last season’s “Regional Holiday Music,” which built a brilliant storyline upon a brief mention from Season 2 that the study group had filled in for the glee club after they were all killed in an accident? If Season 4 is going to be at all memorable, the show must move beyond merely calling back to the past. Unlike Magnitude, Harmon will not be coming back—so here’s hoping that the remaining episodes hold some fresh ideas from the writers’ own chalkboard brainstorming sessions.